The USS Enterprise D is my favorite starship to appear in the franchise. She’s massive while still looking weightless. She’s graceful, majestic, grand; basically all the things that a starship Enterprise should be. Even as she approaches being 30 years old, she looks timeless. So, let’s explore her history, design and destruction. The follow writing is a companion to the video above, so I recommend watching that before reading any further.
Design & Aesthetic:
From an aesthetic standpoint, she’s the most progressive ship ever designed in the Enterprise linage. The ship has a compressed oval motif that’s most visible with her Saucer Section, Main Deflector Dish and Buzzard Collectors. This effect of this motif is calming. Her chief designer, Andrew Probert resisted the temptation of designing an aggressive warship. While a warship may’ve sold more toys with kids, it would’ve have fit in with The Next Generation’s outlook on the future. Star Trek was never about outer space dog fights like Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica. Star Trek about the Enterprise arriving on a distress call, then her crew would resolve the issue using every resource the Enterprise provided them. Her armaments are simply a set of forward and aft torpedo bays and a few thin phaser arrays wrapping a few areas of the hull. They might be the last thing people notice when looking at her. The USS Enterprise D conveys that spirit very well.
Her warp nacelles are also understated. Proportional to the original and refit Constitution Class Enterprise, the Galaxy Class Enterprise’s nacelles are relatively small. They’re also tucked under the Saucer Section and angled forward with thin pylons. The original Enterprise went with an opposite approach. The Constitution Class warp nacelles were large and long. They dramatically rose out of her hull on long, sweeping pylons and here angled backwards to create the illusion of forward motion. The original and refit Constitution Class Enterprise is just as evocative, but there’s something to be said for the understated grace of the Enterprise D. Within the narrative, she’s a much larger, advanced and faster ship, but Andrew Probert resisted the temptation to express that in her outer appearance.
In fact, the Enterprise D outer appearance was initially supposed to be even more benign. Probert’s original coloring scheme can be found here (http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Galaxy_class_model). In a nutshell, instead of the standard federation grey used on the finished filming model, Probert wanted the Aztec hull pattern to consist of robin’s egg blue and pale greens. The model makers Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) honored Probert’s suggested color scheme as well as they could while also taking practical considerations into account.
Memory Alpha does a great job at chronicling the Enterprise D’s filming models. In short, there were initially two models. A 6 foot model that could physically separate. It was large and heavy since both the Star Drive and Saucer Sections requires their own independent skeletal structure and lighting systems. Then there’s the 2 foot model for extreme wide shots. Once ILM completed filming the stock footage TNG producers requested, Image G took over later visual effects duties. They were a much smaller operation with even more limited resources. Almost immediately the 6 foot model became too cumbersome for the rigors of a weekly television series. Following TNG’s second season, Image G constructed a smaller 4 foot model. This model didn’t need to separate, so they could cut down on size and weight. The 4 foot model wasn’t as refined as the 6 foot model, but it allowed Image G to create more dynamic shots of the ship, so it was a fair tradeoff.
Having another Enterprise D model also gave producer the flexibility of augmenting the 4 foot model for the alternate future Enterprise in All Good Things. This ship would go on display at a Planet Hollywood, then go missing for several years before resurfacing where it was restored.
The ship’s graceful design was likely the core reason why she was destroyed in Star Trek Generations. As the video USS Enterprise D Therapy chronicles, her aesthetic design led to several complications with the filming model. The combination of being too heavy with complicated lighting circuits and have a limited number of mounting points, the original filming model would’ve been replaced regardless of the ship being destroyed within the movie or not. Since this of TNG’s first movie, the producers also wanted to make a big splash, so she was destroyed. When you consider that the climax of Generations is Picard, Kirk and Soran fumbling over a rocket remote control, the rest of the Enterprise D crew needed something to do in the movie.
Like a lot of geeky kids in the 80s, the Star Trek The Next Generation Technical Manual was a treasure trove of information. One of the nuggets from the manual was a diagram illustrating an emergency saucer landing. While the destruction of the Enterprise D felt rushed and unnecessary to me, I was entertained that the writers would follow this obscure diagram from a non-canon publication that was seven years old by the time Generations was released. While it may’ve made practical sense to ditch the Enterprise D’s model and design following Generations, the later TNG movies lost one of the series’ most iconic elements. The Enterprise D remains the quintessential Captain Picard Enterprise.
One of my favorite aspects of the Constitution Class Enterprise was that it was the same ship between TOS and the first three movies. When that Enterprise eventually blew up, it felt appropriate. That wasn’t the case with the Enterprise D. It still felt new. Audiences next got a chance to really see her go toe-to-toe with a Romulan Warbird, or take serious damage like in The Wrath of Khan. The Enterprise D was eventually downed by a defective Bird of Prey, which added to the cheap feeling Generations gave off. Even the use of the Bird of Prey was cheap. It was basically the only movie-quality Klingon ship they could use. The other Klingon ships from the 24th Century weren’t up to snuff for the big screen. It might’ve been more effective to use an equally powerful Klingon ship, but the movie didn’t have the budget or time to design a new Klingon ship. Not only that, but when the Bird of Prey was later destroyed, they simply reused footage from Star Trek VI. Wasn’t there an alternate shot of the Bird of Prey explosion from Star Trek VI that they could’ve used? In USS Enterprise D Therapy, you’ll notice they cut to the Bird of Prey as the explosion starts because otherwise you’d see the Star Trek VI torpedo hit the Bird of Prey.
On the 2009 Director’s Commentary of Generations, David Carson claims they shot their own Bird of Prey destruction. He seems fairly hazy with his recollection of Generation’s production, so it’s tough to believe him. If he is being accurate, the shot must’ve turned out poorly causing them to use Star Trek VI’s footage. I’m off topic from the Enterprise D, but the manner in which they reuse the Bird of Prey footage illustrates the rushed and cheap production of Generations that failed to give the Enterprise D a proper send off.
While there’s been three new Enterprise designs since the 1701-D with the Enterprise E, NX-01, and JJ-verse reboot, none have really come close be being as iconic as the Enterprise D. That’s remarkable considering her design is so understated. The D stands out as an Enterprise design that not preoccupied with looking cool and she’ll probably be the last Enterprise to be able to say that.